The Best Way Back into a Fitness Routine
Every pregnancy is unique, which means every postpartum return to a healthy fitness routine should be unique. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, if you had an uncomplicated vaginal delivery, light exercise can be safe and therapeutic for both mind and body as early as a few days postpartum. If you had a C-section, it’s another story. You’re recovering from major surgery and need to wait longer. In both cases, it’s important to consult your doctor before you begin even light exercise.
No matter what, “your body is going to be very different, and you want to treat it well so you can come back as strong as you’d like to be,” says Jamie Jones, a personal trainer who began specializing in pre- and postnatal fitness after giving birth to her first child. Jones is also a doula, and her get-moving strategy for new moms is about more than getting your cardio in. “Give yourself grace and time to understand what’s happening in your body, and be honest with yourself about what it needs,” she says. “That’s the most important thing.” Even after your doctor determines you’re ready to ease back into a fitness routine, health experts underscore the importance of taking it slow.
Keep in mind that even though exercising is safe while breastfeeding, you may not see changes in your body right away. “No one told me that you can gain weight breastfeeding, but if you're feeding your body what it needs to be able to feed your baby, you might,” says Jones, who is quick to point out that your body needs that fuel to produce breast milk and support a healthy recovery.
24 hours after delivery: Find your breath
“I work with a lot of women who have back pain or pelvic floor issues three or four weeks postpartum,” says Jones. “Our sessions aren’t about fitness training; they’re movement and breathwork sessions to reconnect with your core and find your pelvic floor.” In other words, breathwork prepares your body for exercise later in the game. “When you’re newly postpartum, if you can devote 10 to 15 minutes to mindful movement and then breathwork throughout that first day, you’re setting yourself up for loads of success when you’re cleared to exercise.”
As soon as you feel up to it: Take a walk
Depending on the type of delivery you had, walking may be a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days after you give birth. But it’s a perfect place to start for everyone. “Walking is a great way to start to build a little bit of endurance,” Jones says. Once you’re home and feeling more mobile, “put your baby in the stroller and go for gentle walks. If you’re craving a little cardio burst, pushing a stroller and keeping a nice, quick pace will get you a little bit of low-impact cardio.” Working up to thirty minutes of walking a day is a good start, whether you go for one long walk or break it up into shorter sessions. “Starting slow and smart is the best way to recover and set yourself up for postpartum success,” says Jones.
A few weeks postpartum: Try safe squats if you feel ready
Squats are great because they’re strengthening but don’t put undue pressure on the abdomen, so gentle versions are usually safe to do a few weeks after delivery, but check with your doctor before starting, as the timing will vary for each person. Jones recommends starting with core breathing and gentle pelvic floor activation, adding some gentle walking into your routine, and then practicing supported squats (see “Supported Squats” sidebar). Even a gentle version can feel satisfying and yield results. “Sometimes I’ll stand in front of the couch with a client while we do squats at a snail’s pace,” Jones says. If you want to make it more weight-bearing, hold the baby while you squat and keep one arm on the back of a chair or couch to maintain your balance.
Remember that being a new mother is a “very physical job, and there are movements you can explore that support the basic moves of new motherhood and still allow your body time to recover,” says Jones. “Sitting straight up while breastfeeding engages your back muscles. And getting up from the couch, out of bed, or off the toilet without using your hands activates your core and glutes.”
One month postpartum: Remind yourself to take it slow
Whatever fitness program you are working toward, be gentle with yourself. “Your organs moved into different places in your body for you to grow a human, and they’re still finding their way back again, all the way up until about eight weeks postpartum,” Jones says. “Your muscles are still trying to reconnect. You still have hormones running rampant through your body.” Relaxin, the hormone that loosens ligaments and softens and widens the cervix during pregnancy, remains in the body after delivery and continues to affect elasticity in muscles, joints, and ligaments. When you do start moving, be careful not to overstretch—even when you are just bending over to pick up your baby.
Six weeks postpartum: Gentle core work
“Postpartum, everyone has to start with the basics,” Jones says. “If you were athletic before, you may have a slight advantage, but that's not always the case and it doesn't mean that you can start sprinting before you’re walking.” It’s common for women to feel great three weeks postpartum—no abdominal separation, more energy—but too much exercise too soon can lead to a setback. Gentle core work is a perfect place to start. (See “Diaphragmatic Breathing” sidebar.) But if you feel any pain in your vagina or abdomen, experience bleeding, leak urine or feces, or feel heaviness in your pelvic floor, stop exercising and see your doctor.
Eight weeks postpartum: Postpartum fitness classes
“I tell most people not to come back to me for a fitness class until eight weeks, and I advise newly postpartum moms to take a prenatal class first to see how it feels,” says Jones. Prenatal fitness classes focus on the core in a way that’s especially gentle and safe for new moms diving back into fitness, but still offer low-impact cardio. When you do move on to postpartum classes or traditional group fitness, listen to your body and look for instructors who offer variations and modifications for new mothers.
Once your doctor gives you the go-ahead for all exercise, an ab routine is a solid place to start (see sidebar), but the general rule is to avoid any exercises that make the abdominal wall bulge forward, like crunches, sit-ups, and double leg lifts. (If you think you may have diastasis recti, you can do a self-diagnosis and see a specialist before returning to an ab routine—certain exercises can make abdominal separation worse. If you’ve been diagnosed with abdominal separation, programs like Every Mother focus on resolving diastasis recti and kickstarting a cardio routine that won’t make the separation worse.)
A strong core makes lifting your baby easier and takes the strain off your lower back, which often bears the brunt of the weight bearing during pregnancy. If you’ve been waking up your abdominals with breathing exercises early on, you’ll feel more ready to move on to moves like bird dogs (see “Bird Dog” below). “Starting slow is key, but continuing to progress appropriately is important, too. The more breathwork and gentle core activation that's been done generally would make for faster progressions, but every postpartum body is different,” says Jones.
Twelve weeks postpartum: Slow cardio
Pilates, swimming, and cycling are low-intensity ways to amp up your workout in the beginning. Yoga is also a good choice, but be sure to choose a postpartum class—all the relaxin hormones in your system makes it easy to overstretch without reminder cues, and certain poses can make abdominal separation worse.
When it comes to running, weightlifting, and high-intensity cardio workouts that involve a lot of jumping around, everybody—and every body—is different. If you can’t wait to get back to a specific sport or workout that involves a lot of jumping (which puts pressure on the internal organs), familiarize yourself with modifications so you can work toward a safe, healthy return.
Breathwork helps with stress and sleep, activates the core muscles, and lengthens the transverse abdominis and pelvic floor muscles.
- Start by either sitting up comfortably or lying on your back with your knees bent. If you are lying down, put a pillow under your head and one under your knees.
- Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly below the ribcage.
- Breathe in slowly. As your lungs fill with air, also allow your belly to expand. Your diaphragm muscle is a dome-shaped muscle under your lungs, and you’ll feel it against the hand on your belly as you inhale.
- Exhale. Notice your belly contracting and your diaphragm moving back upward.
- Repeat at a comfortable pace for two to three minutes.
When you feel ready to engage your glutes, hip flexors, and quadriceps, start slowly and use props for support.
- Using a chair or the back of a couch for balance, stand with your feet hips-width apart and turned out. (The degree of turnout depends on your body, but generally you want your knees tracking over your second and third toes—this will ensure alignment is correct and help avoid knee issues. Between five and twenty-five degrees is comfortable for most.)
- Inhale, engage your core, and sit back like you are going to drop into a chair. Focus the weight into your heels. Don’t let your knees go past your toes.
- Exhale and stand up, using your heels to push your body back to your starting position.
This is a good exercise when you’re ready to work the muscles around the spine, the abdominal muscles, and the glutes.
- Begin on all fours in a tabletop position: hands under shoulders, knees under hips.
- Keep your spine neutral, neck lengthened, and head looking down at the ground.
- Inhale to fill, exhale to engage your pelvic floor and core.
- Extend your left arm in front of you while you extend your right leg behind you.
- Hold this position for three to five seconds, keeping core and glutes engaged and in line with your spine, and then slowly return your palm and knee to the ground.
- Inhale in tabletop position, then exhale and engage your core while lifting your right arm and left leg. Hold and return to tabletop position.
- Repeat this sequence four to six times on each side.
Online Fitness Classes
There are many live and on-demand streaming classes designed specifically for postpartum mothers. Here are a few good options.